What have you done today to make you feel proud?

In July 2004, London was sitting in 4th place out of the 5 contenders to host the 2012 Olympic games, but just a year later, on 6th July, 2005, the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2012 Olympics to London.  I know exactly where I was at that moment. My eldest son was off school sick, he was tucked up in bed watching TV and I was in the room when a live news bulletin interrupted our viewing to announce the 2012 Olympics decision …

The London 2012 bid team had played an absolute blinder, and set in motion a series of events lasting more than seven years, culminating in one of the greatest Olympics ever held. It didn’t end with the campaigning, it was also in the planning, the preparation and the execution. Historically, olympic projects have always been beset with financial problems and delays, but somehow London 2012 was delivered on time (if not quite to budget), regenerating a part of London long forgotten to many, even those that lived in the UK and even those of us that worked in London.

And as if that wasn’t enough, the Team GB athletes delivered the greatest athletic performance the country has ever seen.  For GB (~60 million population) to finish third in the medal table behind USA (>300 million) and China (>1.3 billion) was just staggering. It was as if the momentum of the successful bid and the enthusiasm the nation wore like an overcoat, somehow fuelled the athletes to also overachieve.

We had government funding and we had a willing public, not just the fans that filled every nook and cranny at every event, but also the army of volunteers who helped, supported and advised, from Heathrow in the west, all the way across town to Salford in the east.

Being British, national pride has often been tinged with guilt for me, as it often brings out an ugliness that seems to have its roots in our imperialistic past when Britannia was arrogant enough to believe she truly ruled the waves. The Union Jack has long been associated with extremism and thuggery, yet somehow at London 2012, the flag was reclaimed as simply the colours of a very proud nation.

London 2012 was a great example of humanity at its best and Britons at their finest. It wasn’t just about the medals, it was also about collaboration, about community, about belief and passion, about friendships, and most importantly about pride.

Fast forward four and a half years to 2016, the same people, but now divided, tangled up in a messy divorce from the EU. Much of that national pride has turned to anger and discord, and politics once again feels dirty and corrupt, no longer a lottery funded cause for the greater good. And unlike 2012, where we opened our borders and outstretched our arms to the world, post-Brexit, we seem to be once again pulling up the drawbridges and closing our doors, not just to outsiders, but to our neighbours too.

We seem to consume our daily news these days through gritted teeth and half closed eyes, wondering what on earth will happen next. We have a government which appears incompetent and ill prepared for Brexit and the challenges that lay ahead. Brexit seems to have beaten us down and created a disharmony that feels a world away from London 2012, and our 2012 passion seems lost in a difficult and uncertain 2016.

But it needn’t be this way.  National pride can, and should, be a force for good, free from any strain of politics, government or economic circumstance. And pride should never be about superiority. French people should be just as proud to be French, Americans to be American, Germans to be German, as I am to be British. London 2012 just reminded us British that we have a lot to be proud of, in the same way other nations should rightly be proud of their own achievements – achievements that should be openly shared and celebrated across a unified world, not envied in a divisive one.

Whatever happens in the coming months, post-Brexit, I’d like to think we in the UK can all regain our own sense of national pride, in whatever way seems fitting for us. Pride can be misplaced and misinterpreted, but it can also be a good thing when kept in context.

The following video encapsulates perfectly what pride meant around London 2012. It’s as funny and quirky as it is beautiful, and it’s joyously optimistic too. It portrays a better time perhaps, but one that can be reclaimed, even in today’s turbulent times.

And we don’t need our governments to do that for us, we can start doing that for ourselves, in whatever way feels right for us.

What have you done to make yourself proud today?

 

 

 

Consolidating Twitter

In an attempt to simplify matters, I’m consolidating my two twitter accounts into one.

@airtyke was personal
@andy_ramsden was professional

My personal wasn’t very funny, or interesting, and my professional wasn’t very professional, or interesting. Lacking insight, wit, intelligence and inspiration across two twitter accounts is doubly demoralising, and so from now on I will only fail to inspire from one of them.

Also, as I get older, I have noticed that my personal life becomes less interesting and less controversial. I no longer tweet drunkenly from the basement of a nightclub at 4am. Sadly, I never did anything remotely like that, which is partly why I am closing down my @airtyke account – the not so funny, my oh-so personal, wannabe aspirational, hilarious, personal twitter account.

From now on @andy_ramsden is where it’s at, twitterly speaking. A rich panoply of thoughts, ideas and, yes, occasionally opinions, that span an eclectic range of interests including virtually anything and everything this blog does, but in less than 140 words, yay!

Kevin, the cockroach

kevin-2

It was late evening on Sunday when I checked into my hotel in Orlando. I was tired after a long flight from San Francisco, but wanted to check email quickly. I sat down at my desk, fired up my laptop and opened up Outlook.  Whilst I sat there, waiting for my messages to sync, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye, a brief, skittish flicker of something off to my right. I couldn’t see anything at first, and I had just refocused on my email when something distracted me again, and this time I saw a cockroach running along the desk.

I yelped, or squealed, possibly both. It was definitely girly. I am very scared of cockroaches. I don’t hate them, in fact I kind of respect them for being such hardy creatures, but I do have a very deep-seated fear of them. These primeval neanderthals could survive a nuclear attack, I remind myself whenever the word cockroach is mentioned.

I felt physically sick as I jumped back from my chair and desk as the roach tried to squeeze itself between the crack of my desk and the adjacent wall, but before it could disappear I placed a glass on top of it, base first, squishing it. Oh good God what had I done!? What was I going to do now? I daren’t lift the glass in case it scurried away, or even worse became angry at my impudence and attacked me. It might scurry off, get its mates and come after me, mob handed, the sneaky little bullying neanderthal shitbastard.

My heart was racing. It was at least in stasis beneath the glass, I reassured myself, it looked crushed, but then one can never be sure and so I left it there and retired to bed, somewhat fearful the wider cockroach family may come out search party style, looking for missing persons.

Monday
I awoke after a fitful sleep and immediately but warily checked the glass. It was still there and surely dead by now but I still couldn’t bring myself to lift the glass in case it moved, and so I left it and left for work. I convinced myself the maid would surely be roach proficient and would sort the problem without even batting her Floridian eyelid.

On my return that evening, the room had been tidied and the glasses had all been returned to the bathroom, no roach in sight, presumed cleared away.  But no sooner had that thought crossed my mind when I saw the very same roach skittering across my desk and disappearing once again down the same crack it had tried to disappear down the previous night.

The maid must have simply lifted the glass, and despite > 12hrs of overnight glass asphyxiation, this prehistoric monster had simply crawled nonchalantly away and carried on living its life in room 3209.  I felt sick again but was calmer than yesterday. I was angry at the maid, she must have seen it under the glass surely? Had she let it go on purpose? Why would she do that? I made a mental note not to leave a tip.

Tuesday
I saw nothing upon awakening and left for my meetings. I returned early evening and had a quick turnaround before heading back out for dinner, but as I switched on the light there he was, for I was sure he was a he, he had that arrogant swagger only males possess. He saw me, waved his antenna in a fuck-you kinda way and headed for the crack, the very same crack, and disappeared once again out of sight.  I was astonished, this felt like a game, one in which I was losing. I felt less scared than previously yet more annoyed that this little critter was toying with me. I returned late that night and as sure as eggs is eggs there Kevin was. I was a little tipsy and feeling brave so I ran towards him, certain I could block his path and head him off at the pass. My efforts proved futile and he once again disappeared down the blessed crack, no doubt laughing as he went.

Wednesday
I didn’t see Kevin Wednesday morning but we met briefly Wednesday evening as I returned and switched on the light. Same routine, there he was, waving his antenna antagonistically at me before nonchalantly (and that irked me a little), almost sauntering his way to the crack as if to goad me to try and stop him. I wasn’t going to be drawn into his childish games so I averted my eyes and ignored him. I think that showed him.

Thursday
Checkout day. As I packed I looked out for Kevin but he was nowhere to be seen. It was daylight, he was probably sleeping. I missed him. I wanted to say goodbye, metaphorically shake his hand out of respect if nothing else. Kevin was a character, we’d played a game and he’d won.

I never did see him again, but I did leave with a new found respect for cockroaches.

And in the end I decided to leave the maid a few dollars tip after all, with a note attached:

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A 7-day Intermittent Fasting experiment

fasting-plate

I’ve been interested in Fasting ever since I saw the Michael Moseley Horizon programme in 2012, not just for weight loss reasons, but rather the claimed health benefits – lowering the risk of developing diabetes, dementia and cancer.

Fasting purportedly diverts energy and resources away from food digestion, focussing instead on doing useful housekeeping things like cell repair, reducing insulin levels and generally ridding the body of toxins and other debris. It also re-teaches the body the lost art of deriving energy from fat, as opposed to from the carbs in our belly – a process called Ketosis. Most of us carry enough fat to survive several weeks without food, which is why fasting is safe, and why many people have successfully conducted 21 or 28 day fasts without any harm.  It’s also popular in many religions and spiritual practices – Islam (Ramadan), Buddhism, Bahá’í, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Jainism, Sikhism, Taoism … the list goes on.

Even outside of religion and spirituality, fasting has been a natural part of human existence for as long as we have been around, primarily because food was scarce and so early man had to eat when he/she could, forced to fast in between hunts and catches. We are therefore designed to cope well with fasting, it’s in our genetic make-up, even if it does feel a little alien to the modern psyche which has been raised on the 3 square meals a day regime (3SMAD). The introduction of 3SMAD has its roots traced back to 19th Century America – it was a symbol of civilisation to sit down with friends and family at fixed times to eat, an attempt to differentiate the ‘civilised’ white man from the indigenous natives. It could therefore be argued that fasting is more natural to us than 3SMAD.

Nevertheless, many people will still argue that 3SMAD is best for us and that fasting is sheer madness. People will claim they feel ‘shaky’ if they miss lunch, and cite this as evidence they need to eat, but there is a counter-argument that your body has just become so dependent on deriving instant energy from food carbs that it’s forgotten the lost art of ketosis which fasting allows.

I therefore decided to give it a go for a week. Instead of the traditional 5:2 diet which I followed for a year or so but found rather difficult, I decided to try just eating one meal a day, every day, limiting my calorie intake to a couple of hours each evening. That means eating nothing whatsoever for 22 hours – no sugar or milk in tea, certainly no snacks or fruit, just water, tea and an occasional black coffee. You could call this the 7:0 diet – a little extreme maybe, but if the theory of ketosis is sound, I figured it wouldn’t be anything more than a psychological challenge. If you want more detail on this, I got the idea from the following video Eating Once a Day.

Important to note I placed no restrictions on what I ate (or drank) in these two hours. I didn’t cap calories or consciously cut out any food groups.  I even allowed alcohol because I know if I had banned it, I would have fallen at the first hurdle. What is interesting, is what happened:

My Diary

Day 1 – not surprisingly this was easy, after all I had a corpulent body full of yesterday’s 3SMAD excess calories to keep me going. I didn’t want any alcohol and just ate a moderate plate of veggie grub.

Day 2- felt good, loved waking up and not having to worry about food all day, a feeling that persisted throughout the week. Interestingly I only had (only wanted, only needed) a light meal, although it was accompanied by a glass of wine. Day 2 was a Friday, and had I banned alcohol in this experiment, I may have felt resentful and rebellious. However, without any alcohol ban I was free to enjoy a glass, and because I felt good about the fasting, I wasn’t tempted to drink any more, ending the evening feeling unusually virtuous and sated.

Day 3 – felt good, went for a long walk during the day (4 miles), had a veg stir-fry for dinner plus two glasses of wine (it was Saturday night). I didn’t really enjoy the second glass of wine – one would have been enough but in a perverse mindfcuked reasoning kind of way that only I could muster, I convinced myself I should have a second glass to prove to myself I wasn’t restricting alcohol.

Day 4 – hard, very hard. Perhaps it was the wine? Who knows, but I had a persistent headache all day, felt tired and sluggish despite sleeping well and craved food throughout, occasionally staring balefully at the cheddar cheese in the fridge. I only just made it through to tea-time, but interestingly didn’t have (or want) any alcohol. Veg Thai green curry (no noodles).

Day 5 – much better. I was busy which helps a lot and I just had a light veg dinner. No alcohol. I definitely felt lighter and I’m definitely sleeping better and eating much healthier food through choice/desire. No cravings whatsoever for junk food (odd for me) and most surprisingly of all, despite not restricting alcohol, I’ve only had 3 glasses of wine in the first 5 days, including a weekend, and anyone that knows me will know that’s quite uncharacteristic.

Day 6 – all went well, seems to get easier. Had a light veg based dinner, no alcohol. Sleep continues to improve. Once again my focus and concentration was immense, far better than usual and my work productivity has undoubtedly increased. Managed a 2.5 mile run.

Day 7 – felt harder. Perhaps knowing this was the last day made me psychologically weak, like I sensed the finish line. But that makes it sounds like it’s been a hard slog and it really hasn’t. I’m only stopping today because I set myself a 7-day target for this experiment and the more I look at it, the more I believe I could continue further. I survived and rounded off the 7-day fast with an oven baked jacket potato and cheese like mama used to make. Enjoyed a 3-mile walk.

In summary

I would say on average I have consumed well under 1,000 calories a day, probably closer to 600-700, and interestingly have eaten smaller portions and higher quality evening meals than I ever did on 3SMAD. I also rarely craved junk food and 3 glasses of wine was well under par for me for a weekly total. I also ate total vegetarian – due in part to a bountiful supply of garden produce, but certainly not a conscious action at the outset of the experiment, perhaps this was pure coincidence.

Of course 600-700 calories a day isn’t sustainable long term, but I guess that’s where ketosis comes in, at least in the short term. I have AMPLE fat stores to draw upon, as do most of us fortunate enough to live in the western world, and so such a challenge over a relatively short period of time is only ever a psychological one I think. This was never going to be, nor ever planned to be, sustainable, I just wanted to check if it was doable, and it was. It’s foolish to draw any firm conclusions, but it has proved to me you don’t have to eat at set meal-times, it’s OK to skip a meal (or two), and in fact it might even be good for you to listen to your body rather than the chimes of the clock.

I have no idea what it has done for (or to) my health, all I can say is I felt better afterwards than I did at the beginning. I felt like I had more energy and my brain was definitely sharper – I could concentrate for longer and didn’t feel sleepy during the day. For the record I lost 3.4kg (7.5lbs) in weight. No doubt much of that will go back on when I return to normal eating, although, and here’s the crux, I’m not entirely sure I will return to my normal 3SMAD eating, but perhaps somewhere in between.

I’m certain many of you will think this was a silly and dangerous thing to have done. All I can say is I survived and as described above I felt better than I did previously. Best of all I believe I now have a much better perspective and handle on my, admittedly rather quirky relationship with food (and maybe also drink).

 

 

Our friend Dave

Dave and I grew up together, we were part of a group that hung around in playground huddles – me (Rammo), Westy, Youngy, Hossy and Sykesy (Dave).  We went through infants, junior school  and then secondary school, and from the ages of around 6 to about 16 we were a fairly tight knit team.

I remember fondly going to Dave’s house one schoolday lunchtime when we were around 14, to listen to his Monty Python records – yes we were the kind of brats on the school bus that would recite the Election Night Special sketch with Tarquin Ptang Ptang Ole Biscuit Barrel. We also had a collective love for rock music and attended many concerts together in our teenage years at glamorous venues such as Sheffield City Hall and Leeds Queens Hall to see bands like Rainbow, Whitesnake, The Scorpions, UFO. We all wore wrangler jackets, we all had band names embroidered on the back. But Dave preferred a leather jacket.

We borrowed albums off each other, we talked about girls, we drank, and we did all the things lads do growing up together, but after O-levels things started to change.  Some of us went on to further education, some of us didn’t, some moved away and went to university, some stayed at home, getting jobs locally. Dave, despite having the intelligence to continue his education as far as he wanted, for he was as bright as any of us, stayed in/around Barnsley.

Fast forward to 2015, we were all 50, and we had a school reunion borne out of Facebook. Many of us hadn’t met for around 35 years and it was scary as shit, but it was also a beautiful moment, not least because most of us had appalling memories of our secondary school days at Kendray Oaks. It was a rough school by anyone’s standards, there was horrendous bullying and violent beatings dotted through our school years and many of us carried that baggage with us well into adulthood.

We all had people we were scared of, our own personal enemies, and there were always groups, ‘us’ and ‘them’ factions throughout. Most of us lads got into scrapes at some point or other, and many of the girls too. All of us in fact, except Dave. Dave was neither Ardsley or Kendray, Dave was Dave. At the reunion we all regaled tales of who we liked and didn’t like, and to a man (and woman) I think I’m right in saying everybody liked Dave.

Some people had forgotten me, some remembered me fondly, some remembered me then ignored me and this was probably true for everyone one on reunion night. Except Dave. Everyone knew Dave and everyone liked Dave.  I honestly can’t remember him ever having a bad word for anyone, or ever getting into any kind of scrape.  Whilst we hid in our cliques, Dave could walk freely between Ardsley and Kendray, knowing he had friends in both camps.  Dave was our bridge, he was our rock, he was what held us together 35 years on.

Despite some fairly serious health issues Dave was pivotal in organising the reunion. He helped sort the venue, he sorted the DJ equipment, he was also the DJ and he was the liaison between Kendray and Ardsley. I remember helping him set up the sound system for the big evening – he was clearly in a lot of pain but never grumbled. He could have easily let others organise things and everyone would have understood perfectly, but he didn’t. When it came to saying a few words, Dave threw the microphone to me, although I helped behind the scenes, Dave was the catalyst that brought us all together, but in true Dave style, he didn’t want any of the glory or praise.

In the photo below, that’s Dave and me at Scout Dyke circa 1981. I’m the gobby twat singing lead vocals and hogging the limelight, Dave is the cool dude playing bass with a snooker cue at the side. That was Dave – always there, always contributing quietly but essentially, keeping the music playing, but never, ever seeking the limelight for himself.

me-and-dave

We all knew he was ill. I called in to see him on a trip up north earlier this year and he was clearly struggling but managed to wear his trademark smile and brave face. He told me he was fine, we chatted, reminisced, hugged briefly and I went on my way.

Dave passed away two days ago, aged just 51. He lived a private life, often alone, yet he had a warmth and compassion that connected and united many of us. It’s ironic that someone could live alone yet touch so many others at the same time.  Without Dave we had no reunion, without Dave I may never have become such a Monty Python fan, but I have so much more to thank him for – his warmth, his humour, his humility, his friendship.

I know I speak on behalf of everyone in the class of ’81 when I say this – we miss you Dave, you were all our best friend and no-one’s enemy and we miss you terribly.

Take care big man.

From all the class of ’81
xx

 

Foie-Gras footballers …

Granted this is the Daily Mail, but strip away their usual level of sinister spin and crass veneer and you can still see the very real problem facing English football today.

Raheem Sterling on return from Euro 2016

And I don’t mean to single out Raheem Sterling. I’m sure he’s just one example of the elite clique that represent English football at international level, but this story neatly sums up the current problem we seem to be facing in the English game.

The mere fact that these players earn £180,000 a week says everything you need to know. No human being on earth needs that kind of money. I’m pleased Raheem spent some of it on a home for his mum, a fine gesture, but to video it, to upload onto snapchat (if that’s what he did), and to glory in it just a day or two after returning from the Euros, says to me that he is totally disconnected from the grass roots game of football in this country.

Whilst the rest of us English are still smarting from the disappointing, rather pathetic and lacklustre exit from the Euros, leaving us watching balefully (pun intended) at other teams like Wales and Iceland playing with a genuine passion, a demonstrable camaraderie and togetherness from shirts 1 to 11, Raheem’s making this little video vignette of vulgarity and uploading it to social media.

Such behaviour suggests to me the current crop don’t really give a shit. £180,000 a week, why should they care about anything?  The life of these Premier League rockstars is now so far removed from reality it almost feels like fiction. And the Premier League is the breeding ground, fuelled by Murdoch’s Sky it has become a Hollywood freak show, a grotesque distortion of the grass roots game of football.

Below that we still have the football league – the Championship and Leagues 1 and 2 – 72 teams, the majority of which still play the game the way the fans want it played. Money talks down here too, and it’s far from perfect, but money talks to a far lesser degree and the product is far more representative of what many of us think of as real football.

As a regular watcher of League 1 football this season, did I ever watch Match of the Day with envy and wish my club were in the top flight? Well, yes I did, but that’s because I want my team to beat other teams week in, week out. I am like every other football fan anywhere in that respect, what I am saying is I don’t want the Premier League in its current form, an institution so distorted by money that it’s ruining our national game.

As far as I am concerned the Sky funded Premier League should be cut free, pushed into the Atlantic and floated off to Hollywood where it belongs. Let me be clear, I don’t want us to lose, nor do I have anything at all against, the current Premier League clubs. There’s just as much tradition, fanaticism and passionate loyalty at Everton, Manchester United and Arsenal as there is at Notts County, Huddersfield and Exeter City. There is no difference in the make up of a Liverpool fan and a Barnsley fan. This isn’t a rant against any clubs, or fans, it’s a rant at the system, one created and fuelled by greed, one that solely exists to line the pockets of the few.

Our national team should be filled with our best players, and our best players should earn a fair wage, but not a grotesque one. Our best players should be as normal as possible but also hard working, hungry whilst hopefully also being delightfully talented. Look again at Wales, at Iceland, look at Leicester City, look at what a club like Barnsley can achieve. What happened in ALL these cases is that a team was built around passion, hard work, teamwork and certainly intelligent and skilled management. Teams that care, comprised of players that care, teams that believe, team that can defeat the odds, teams so passionate they almost burst with pride.

That’s what I want from my England team. The answer most certainly isn’t yet another corporate regime change at the management level. We don’t need a different manager who still conforms to the same FA template as the previous 10 managers, all who similarly failed to breathe life into a disparate collection of overpaid, Premier League celebrities.

What we need is a change in the top league if that’s possible. We need to stop force feeding ever more gold sovereigns down the gullets of our spoilt starlets in an attempt to create an even richer blend of grotesque, Foie Gras football. Or if we must do that, if we can’t stop that happening, round them up and put them in a circus tent and let people watch them on a pay-per-view channel.

I want my England team to be formed of players genuinely proud to wear the shirt, players desperate to win,players that bleed, players that hurt like us whenever they lose, simply because they care. Just like us.

 

 

 

The UK EU referendum debacle …

I don’t consider myself political. I don’t like clubs as I have  blogged before, and no clubs are more abhorrent to me than political parties.  I admire those that proudly wear their politics on their sleeve, but I personally struggle to understand how anyone could ever constrain all their thoughts and beliefs to the inside of a blue or red box of thinking and ideology.

I have beliefs. I believe passionately in the NHS and the welfare state, I want those unable to help themselves to be supported by a caring society, and I support controlled immigration. I also believe in incentivising companies to establish themselves in the UK to bolster our workforce, and I believe in meritocracy. However I know by saying all those things that doesn’t place me in either a blue, yellow or red box, for all parties will claim all these beliefs too.  Even UKIP will claim controlled immigration, whilst Labour will claim to be the party of business and finance and the Tories the protectors (and creators) of the NHS. In summary, everyone is in favour of everything nice and against everything nasty.

And so in an attempt to try and pin ones colours to any mast at election or referendum time, one has to dig deeper into the subtle, twisty-turny definitions and sub-texts, and more often than not you come out of that process more confused than ever before.

And all this is perfectly exemplified by the current EU Referendum here in the UK.

Let me lay out my beliefs. I am a passionate Europhile. My family and I have been immigrants in Germany (’95-’97) and although not the EU, we were also immigrants in USA (’98-’00), so I strongly support immigration too.  Those two family adventures where we lived overseas in other cultures are possibly the richest, fondest and most positive experiences of my life. My wife and I travel to continental Europe whenever time and money permits because we love to eat, drink and walk through the streets of our continental neighbours, absorbing their culture and history and always leaving feeling richer as a result.

Yet I am also deeply, deeply frustrated by the EU. It feels like a victim of its own success. In trying to serve 28 masters it serves none. It feels horrendously complex, probably because it has to be with 28 masters where compromise means no-one gets what they want. And it appears to be so overly bureaucratic as to be almost stagnant. I don’t understand who elects these people, I don’t know who these people are and I couldn’t name any of them either (shame on me). What I do see are largely facile rulings and decisions – who can call their cheese ‘Cheddar’, Cadbury’s chocolate can’t be called chocolate, bananas that are too curved, bread toasters to be banned, children under 8 not allowed to blow up balloons, etc. And then we have the Common Agricultural Policy subsidising farmers to produce goods nobody wants or needs.

And so here I am, I want to be in Europe, I want to be part of Europe, but I am deeply frustrated by the EU. Do we stay and fight for change from within? Haven’t we been trying to do that since the inception of the common market, and if anything things seem to be getting worse? Or do we Brexit and start afresh doing everything ourselves? At least we would then have accountability, we would have decisions made by people we can vote in or out. But what about rulings that don’t respect borders – what about terrorism? air pollution? environmental issues? These issues clearly don’t respect our nationalistic borders, and yet impact us significantly and surely benefit best from common purpose and cross European debate? And if we leave what model should we adopt? The Norwegian model? the Swiss model? Canadian model? No-one seems to know and the Brexit strategy does feel rather uncertain.

And the more one reads, the more confused one gets.  The hyperbole, misdirection and spurious lies from both sides is horrendous and completely unhelpful. Claims that holidays will cost £250 more if we Brexit are nonsense, as are claims from the Brexit side that we will sign trade deals with 28 countries in a matter of months. And everyday the claims and counter claims become ever more insidious and ridiculous. Surely they see this don’t they? So is that their intent? To aim to confuse, to obfuscate the truth through a smokescreen of lies and deception?

Once again I find myself struggling to join any club, staring balefully through the EU debating playground railings, seeing others joyously pinning their rosettes to their EU referendum jackets.

I feel slightly envious, yet the harder I try, the more I listen, the more I read, the more I search and research, the more confused I become.

Mindfulness & the importance of ‘now’

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All we ever have is what is in our mind at any given moment. Wherever we are, at whatever time of the day, on any and every day, our mind governs who, what and how we are. Every experience we have, every mood we possess, whether it be a happy one or a sad one, is shaped entirely by our mind.

And there is nothing else.

Most of us, me included, spend the majority of our time pursuing and seeking out happiness. We constantly and consistently want to be happy or satisfied ‘now’. Our actions are chosen for this one specific reason and our days are formed by a series of decisions aimed at maximising happiness and minimising sadness, and yet at every turn we seem to be denied, foiled  and hoisted by our own happiness seeking petards.

A typical moment in a typical day for many of us might play out like this:

I have a headache (pain), so I choose to go for a walk to get some much needed fresh air, yes that will make me feel better (happy). I walk (relaxed), but after a short while I feel too hot, the sun is stronger than I anticipated and I start to feel uncomfortable (sad). I remove my jacket and immediately I feel better (happy), but there’s a cool breeze and after a few moments I feel a chill (cold). I walk faster. This is good (energised), but soon I feel tired, my muscles ache, is that a blister I can feel? (pain). I head for home, this walk has taken longer than I had hoped, I must get back, there’s things to do (anxiety). I get home, I feel good for the walk (accomplishment), but the positive feeling I experience is soon wiped out by guilt of the chores I need to accomplish today (guilt). I chastise myself for wasting time on a walk when I have so much to do (critical). I berate my weakness for procrastination (sad). I crack on with some jobs (productive). I am hungry (empty), I eat a sandwich (fulfilled), but all that the full fat cheese (guilt). I drink black tea, no milk, that’s good (healthy), but what about staining my teeth? (ugly). I want chocolate to round off my lunch (greedy). I eat chocolate (happy), but the guilt reappears (sad). I have a thirst (unpleasant), so I drink water (sated). I need the loo (unpleasant), I go to the loo (relief). I must work!(stress)  I work (productive). I’m bored and I feel tired (fatigue). I take a break and watch some TV (relax), but such mindless garbage on TV! (guilt). There’s nothing in for dinner because I’m working so damned hard (frustrated). It’s Friday, sod it I’ll get a take away, yay! (elation). I work excitedly until I order my curry (excited). I eat my curry, woohoo! (deliriously happy). But wait, I’m so full I think I need surgery (uncomfortable). I’m so stuffed I can’t move (fat). I waddle to bed, I can’t sleep (indigestion). I hate myself for wasting money on the stupid takeaway and now I can’t sleep (very sad).

Many of us live our days like this, constantly leaping from a state of happiness to a state of unhappiness, over and over again, see-sawing from high to low and back again, trying to zero in on happiness and contentment but only ever briefly experiencing it before being boomeranged off to the next trauma or disappointment.

Whilst we can only ever physically live in the ‘now’, our minds seem to live anywhere but there. At every turn we are either regretting a past event or trying to second guess a future one. On a pleasant summer’s walk, instead of delighting in the majesty of nature, we are thinking of getting home (future), of jobs undone (future), conversations planned (future). Or perhaps we are replaying old conversations (past) or reliving failed arguments (past), oblivious to the deep blue sky above (now), the bird wistfully singing in the tree (now), the rabbit running freely in the field (now).

We are, by nature, material seekers. We search out pleasant sights, sounds, tastes, sensations, moods. We try and satisfy ourselves intellectually and surround ourselves with friends and loved ones. We seek out art, music, fine wine, delicious foods, and yet our pleasures are rarely anything more than fleeting. Like the video game Frogger, we jump from experience to experience in search of happiness, like a hummingbird we stop briefly before moving on to the next, constantly trying to keep boredom and unhappiness at bay.

Yet most of us seem to fail spectacularly. Happiness seems to be at best temporary, and at times elusive, which begs the question – is there actually a true form of happiness? One which doesn’t depend on having 24hr TV, fast food, alcohol, or having loved ones within arm’s reach? Is it actually possible to be happy before anything happens? Before material gratification and in spite of life’s difficulties such as ill health, old age, financial concerns, disease and ultimately death?

Many of us live as though the answer is a resounding ‘no’ – see above – and so we continue to chase and to seek, and yet constantly and consistently fall short.

‘Mindfulness’ shines an exciting light towards a potential path to true happiness that seems to be free of the chase, and thankfully also free of unfounded hype and hope, based firmly in neurology and science. Mindfulness teaches us to live in the now, always and in all ways. And this isn’t at all new. Buddhists and other Eastern religions have known this for thousands of years, yet many of us are only just catching on.

Contrary to popular belief, Mindfulness meditation isn’t at all about thinking, but rather about experience. Mindfulness simply teaches us to live in the ‘now’, teaching us to develop a vivid awareness of whatever is appearing in our minds and our physical body – thoughts, sensations, moods – without grasping at the pleasant or fleeing from the unpleasant. With mindfulness we stop the chase, we just ‘are’.

Mindfulness is easy to define but unfortunately very difficult to master. The principal enemy of mindfulness is thought distraction. The problem isn’t thoughts themselves, but rather the state of thinking without knowing that we are thinking. The pitfall is being lost in thought and thereby once again becoming a slave to the thought, suffering whatever emotion that thought conjures – happy one moment, sad the next.

Mindfulness teaches us to divorce our ‘self’ from our thoughts, placing a distance between us and them, rendering ‘them’ as different to ‘us’, and thereby freeing us from this slavery to emotional thinking.

Imagine that feeling where you’re so immersed in a horror film that you’re living it for real. You might scream with fear as the mad axeman chases the victim through the forest, your fists clenched, your throat dry, paralysed with fear as though you are the hunted, but then suddenly your phone rings and you realise you are sitting on the settee, merely watching a fictional play of plasma light on the wall. You feel immediate relief, suddenly the spell is broken, you are free.

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This is mindfulness. Many of us, me included, live most of our days lost in the movies of our own lives, slaves to our emotional thinking. Mindfulness provides us with an alternative, a path to what many refer to as true enlightenment. I’m not there yet, far from it in fact, but I see the way, I see the clearing ahead and I figure it’s worth a try.

 

 

 

A letter to my 17yr old self …

In response to A letter from my 17yr old self.

2016

Dear 17yr old Andy,

Thanks for your letter. Well, here we are. We survived, we are still alive and kicking! The good news is we generally did pretty well. I’m not going to tell you the details as it will spoil it for you, but we get through, so keep on keeping on young man.

What I will say, is that those guilty pleasures of yours – singing in the band, making people laugh – they’re not just lusty and pointless, so don’t keep dismissing them. Those are beacons in the dark, sirens in the quiet still of night. Despite what you might think, they are your soul speaking to you.

I just realised that last sentence might freak you out. Sorry, let me rephrase. Those are the things that make you what you are. Reading your letter brought back many memories for me, how we believed and trusted unerringly in our elders, and by consequence, how we felt anything we experienced that didn’t align with them was somehow incongruous, somewhat deviant and unhealthy.

I remember now, thanks to your letter, how we lived our life by a set of rules devised purely by teachers, parents, lawmakers, guidelines always laid down in tablets of stone. Our success was measured not by happiness, but by how well we stayed on that path of righteousness as prescribed by ‘them’.

If I can offer one piece of advice, it’s to stop always looking to others for guidance – instead start to look inwardly at your self, at our self. You know that ‘gut feel’ you get, but always push back if it doesn’t conform to The Book? Well, stop doing that. Stop it now. Immediately. Listen to the voices inside – I bet that spooks you too? Don’t worry, I am sane of mind, I just see life differently, through a less filtered lens.

I don’t mean to suggest you ignore The Book altogether – there’s a lot of great and sound advice out there, advice that’s built on thousands of years of hard earned experience – but complement it with your own thoughts and beliefs. Believe it or not you (we) are unique, and we do have talents that would horrify you if I were to tell you them now.

And so I won’t tell you, for you must find them on your own, because the journey is the biggest part of any experience, not the destination. That obsession of getting somewhere, stop that too. Retune your beliefs, redefine your passions and act accordingly. Most importantly, stop obsessing with trying to define the end point all the time. Instead set the rules (your rules), and let your own moral compass navigate.

By the way – I still don’t get electricity, it just works, and the sooner you get comfortable with the fact that you don’t need to understand everything, the better it will be.

Forget destinations and just enjoy the journey, young man, just make sure it’s your journey and not anyone elses.

Love,

Me (2016)
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A letter from my 17yr old self …

1982

Dear 51 yr old Andy,

I’m sitting here in the common room at Sixth Form college. You remember this place? Defender video machine in the corner, table football, comfy chairs, coffee shop – we even have a radio, pretty cool.

I feel so much more grown here compared to Kendray Oaks Comp. I feel a hell of a lot safer too – there’s no bullying, everyone is here because they want to be (by and large), everyone wants to learn (by and large) – you know what I mean, you remember that don’t you?

Yeah, it’s cool here, I like it, but the work is so hard. A-levels are like ten times harder than O-levels. I’m struggling with Physics – I can’t grasp ‘electricity’ no matter how hard I try – electrons moving along a wire make a bulb light up – are you serious?? Economics is kind of interesting, it’s different, but some of the concepts seem a bit alien and I’m not sure what the point of it is? And maths is maths, just maths, although it’s much harder, much more abstracted than O-level.

That’s the thing about A-levels, it feels all rather ‘disconnected’. At school, working out the price of apples and oranges knowing that John bought 2 apples and 3 oranges for 19p whilst Jenny bought 1 apple and 3 oranges for  17p seems like a worthwhile thing to do. It has practical meaning. However, working out the value of ξ in a Fourier Transform that ranges from minus infinity to plus infinity seems somewhat unnecessary and unimportant to me:

\hat{f}(\xi) = \int_{-\infty}^\infty f(x)\ e^{- 2\pi i x \xi}\,dx,   

Quite frankly, as much as I like Sixth Form (I have a girlfriend!), I’m gutted about my subject choices. Anyway I’ll plod on because Dad said it’s the right thing for me and he’s always right. Besides, what else would I have chosen? The Arts subjects aren’t going to get anyone a job, jobs come from engineering and mathematics. That’s how the world works. People that study the Arts are a bit … well deluded, and silly. How hard can Arts be anyway? Drawing pictures and writing stories – these people will never get a job!

I plan on going to university. I have no idea what subject I will study, but I will go. It’s the thing to do, the teachers said so, and besides what else would I do?

Some friends of mine have formed a band, they play stuff I love and it’s cool, but what about their homework? They practice on school nights! Such a waste, they’ll regret that in later life. Although I am a bit jealous deep down – I’d love to be the singer in the band but I have to push that thought deep down inside, it doesn’t help anything.

I also really love The Young Ones – its a new comedy series on TV and Rik Mayall is brilliant. I have all the episodes on VHS tape and I know every word, every joke, every line from every episode. Mum and dad think it’s a bit odd, older people don’t generally like it and so I feel bad about that as older people are almost always right. They call it Alternative Comedy. I watch it when they’ve gone to bed. I’d love to tell jokes like Rik but I have to push that thought deep down inside, it doesn’t help anything.

So how’s life at 51, older me? I feel a bit nervous writing that – how did we do? And do you understand electricity yet!?

Andy, 1982